Total eclipse: U-M experts leap at rare chance to view sun’s atmosphere from the ground

EXPERTS ADVISORY

The April 8 total eclipse will reveal the sun’s outer atmosphere as a tangle of light that outlines the moon’s silhouette like a crown. This image inspired the Latin name for the sun’s atmosphere-the corona.

University of Michigan researchers are preparing cameras, weather balloons, radio antennas and other scientific instruments, as well as young citizen scientist collaborators, for this opportunity. The next total solar eclipse won’t come to the U.S. for another 20 years.

U-M experts are available to discuss the science of the sun, its impacts on Earth, and how they plan to study the sun during the upcoming eclipse.

Mojtaba Akhavan-Tafti is an assistant research scientist of climate and space sciences and engineering and the faculty leader of a nationwide citizen science collaboration called the Sun Radio Interferometer Space Experiment (SunRISE) Ground Radio Lab. He can discuss how students from 17 high schools from Marquette, Michigan, to Puerto Rico, and college students from U-M’s Multidisciplinary Design Program installed radio antennas at schools and U-M’s Peach Mountain Observatory to measure radio signals from the sun, Jupiter and Saturn.

"Our goal is to expose students of all backgrounds to space sciences and engineering early in their careers, with the hope of inspiring tomorrow’s space scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and decision-makers,- Akhavan-Tafti said.

Ordinarily, the students help gather data on radio signals that may indicate hazardous solar eruptions called coronal mass ejections. When flung at Earth, the plasma and the magnetic field it carries can disrupt the electrical grid and GPS communications. Radio signals from the sun could help provide more advanced notice that a solar storm is on the way. However, when the moon blocks a portion of the sun’s constant radio fuzz, radio signals from the planets will be easier to detect with the student-run antennas and could reveal the chemical makeup of planetary atmospheres. Also, the college students will bring their antennas to Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, to look for radio bursts where the sun has completely eclipsed the moon.

The students’ efforts complement the SunRISE space mission-a constellation of six, toaster-size satellites whose launch has yet to be determined by NASA-that will also look for radio bursts inside the sun and coronal mass ejections. Together, they will triangulate where inside the sun the radio bursts come from, helping to determine whether radio signals that occur without any visible coronal mass ejection indicate one on the far side of the sun.

For more information on the project, read Michigan Engineering’s digital feature about the total solar eclipse.

James Cutler is an associate professor of aerospace engineering who can discuss U-M’s participation in the National Eclipse Ballooning Project, a multiyear initiative to understand how the eclipse impacts Earth’s atmosphere. The project’s 15 students will travel with Cutler into the path of the total eclipse, where they will attach scientific equipment to helium-filled weather balloons. Their high-altitude measurements will show the team how much the moon’s shadow cools Earth’s atmosphere on its path across the country, whether that cooled air sends waves through Earth’s atmosphere, and how the eclipse might impact weather on Earth.

David Gerdes , professor of physics and astronomy, uses the tools of optical astronomy and data science to study minor planets throughout the solar system, with a special focus on the region beyond Neptune. He and his students have discovered numerous minor planets in the Kuiper Belt and beyond, including a dwarf planet candidate located 90 times Earth’s distance from the sun. The asteroid (208117) Davidgerdes was recently named in his honor.

"Solar eclipses are a wonderful opportunity to engage the public in citizen science. The largest of these is the NASA-funded Dynamic Eclipse Broadcast Initiative - Gerdes said. "On Eclipse Day, April 8, U-M students stationed in Texas and Vermont will join over 300 volunteers along the path of totality from Mexico to Canada. DEB will provide web broadcast images in near real-time.

"Compelling images from the partial phases of the eclipses and science-quality data from the path of totality will be shared from dozens of sites. DEB Initiative follow-on projects will feature ongoing solar observations, exoplanet transit observations, variable star and asteroid light curve observations, and climate change relevant atmospheric optical depth measurements from across North America.-

Justin Kasper is the principal investigator of the SunRISE space mission and a professor of climate and space sciences and engineering who helped develop instruments aboard the Parker Solar Probe, a spacecraft that dove into the sun’s corona March 30. He can discuss how the instruments measure the density and temperature of the electrically conductive gas, or plasma, that the corona is made of, and how Parker’s recent flight path could provide eclipse observers a unique chance to link up direct measurements of the corona’s plasma and magnetic field to the light and radiation detectable from Earth.

For more information on Parker Solar Probe, read Michigan Engineering’s digital feature about the total solar eclipse.

Jon D. Miller , research scientist emeritus at the Institute for Social Research, is an expert in the measurement and analysis of the public understanding of science and technology. For the past four decades, he has examined factors associated with the development of attitudes toward science and science policy. He conducted a national survey of the 2017 eclipse, finding that 216 million American adults viewed the eclipse either directly, online or on television, dwarfing the viewership of Super Bowl games.

Gabor Toth is a research professor of climate and space sciences and engineering who can discuss how he uses data from the Parker Solar Probe to create models of how the sun’s magnetic fields behave. His most recent research provides a new explanation for the thousands of S-shaped kinks, or "switchbacks,- in the sun’s magnetic field. Because switchbacks move magnetic energy throughout the solar system, some scientists think they might play an important role in heating and accelerating the solar wind, the stream of plasma that covers our solar system and sometimes disrupts Earth’s magnetic field.

Although scientists still debate how switchbacks form, Toth thinks that when magnetic waves move through the solar corona at varying speeds, they can tilt the magnetic field and create switchbacks. If his theory is true, magnetic waves that wouldn’t normally heat the solar wind would be converted into a form that could.

Daniel Welling is an assistant professor of climate and space sciences and engineering and the faculty adviser of Coronacast, a student-led effort to predict the shape of the sun’s corona during the upcoming eclipse. He can discuss how students are updating computer models that have been developed at U-M for decades to better describe the sun’s magnetic field and the flow of energy and heat through the sun’s atmosphere.

With these models, the students will create images of what the corona should look like in the upcoming eclipse. The performance of the models will be tested on the day of the solar eclipse, when the Coronacast team will compare their computer-generated images to photos taken by their collaborators at the University of Texas at Arlington and satellites imaging the sun’s plasma and magnetic field from space. If their models are a close match to the real corona, the young scientists will know that they are closer to figuring out the corona’s biggest mystery-how its plasma is heated to the point where it can escape the sun’s gravity as the solar wind.

"Right now, we don’t know how to turn the dials on most of the parameters in our models that describe how plasma in the corona behaves, and the eclipse could help us learn where to set those dials,- Welling said.

The event will be livestreamed during the solar eclipse. For more information on Coronacast, read Michigan Engineering’s digital feature about the total solar eclipse.

Lulu Zhao , assistant research scientist of climate and space sciences and engineering, leads the CLEAR Center, a NASA Space Weather Center of Excellence. She is available to discuss how the center aims to create 24-hour forecasts of harmful solar radiation between Earth, the moon and Mars.

That radiation comes from particles in the sun’s plasma that are accelerated to high speeds and energy, or "solar energetic particles.- These particles can damage the electronics on scientific instruments and deliver hazardous doses of radiation to astronauts working in space.

Advanced warning could help mitigate the damage, but scientists can’t predict when and where solar energetic particles will appear until they have already been detected by scientific instruments orbiting Earth-and they can arrive in as little as 10 minutes, giving us barely any time to prepare after an eruption. The CLEAR Center hopes to create forecasting tools to predict when solar energetic particles will hit certain regions of the solar system up to a day in advance, Zhao said.

For more information on the CLEAR Center, read Michigan Engineering’s digital feature about the total solar eclipse.

Liang Zhao , associate research scientist, and Judit Szente , assistant research scientist, both of climate and space sciences and engineering, are taking K-5 students from the Hebrew Day School of Ann Arbor and their families on an NSF-funded field trip to see the total eclipse in Findlay, Ohio. Both researchers are available to discuss the field trip, which is funded by Zhao’s National Science Foundation early career grant.

"I believe witnessing the eclipse alongside young children is the best way to experience one of nature’s wonders, and nothing can inspire curiosity and motivate young minds quite like nature itself,- Zhao said.

Szente said the field trip will also be a good opportunity for budding scientists at U-M to train their outreach muscles: "Scientists at large research institutions tend to forget that we represent something for the general public as well. I hope this shared experience will bring the future scientists closer to this aspect of their future public roles.-